How to Not Burn Out in the Weeds

In the Weeds

The weeds are no place for a leader. We get lost and burnt out in the weeds, we all know this. But the weeds often feel taller than us, so we literally can’t see out of them. And if we get our heads above them for a moment all we see is more weeds like an endless prairie all the way to the horizon.

To see the big picture, for ourselves and for our team, we need to be able to raise our gaze above the weeds. But to do that we need some good weed cutters.

Every successful leader has their own collection of weed cutters. Here’s one of mine. It may seem too simple, but simple has great power.

I wear a hematite bracelet with a clasp made of two small magnets that hold the ends together around my wrist. The bracelet is a little tight, and I fidget with it repeatedly through the day.

Sometimes when I fidget with it the magnetic clasp separates for a moment and then snaps back together, catching a small fold of my skin between the two ends. Suddenly, in the midst of that momentary physical sensation, the weeds vanish. I stop and admire the bracelet, which I like a lot, and for that moment there’s just me and the bracelet, nothing else. No weeds.

When I look up from the bracelet I have two choices: let the weeds rise around me again, or take a breath and raise my gaze before the weeds have the chance to raise themselves.

It takes discipline to make the second choice. The weeds are strangely attractive, even comforting in a perverse sort of way. But if I raise my gaze instead, I often see that I’ve been working very hard and very effectively on the wrong thing. Or I suddenly have an experience like in the shower of seeing the answer to a problem. Or I feel the weight of worry fall away for a moment.

In that moment of open space, I can see clearly. And I can choose to stay in that open space for a while, to look at the big picture, to see the things the leader needs to see.

But without the weed cutter, I wouldn’t have given myself the chance to look.

A leader needs someone whispering in their ear all day, “Look up. Look up. Look up.” Seeing the big picture isn’t just a corporate retreat or strategic planning exercise. It’s a moment by moment discipline throughout the day, and it’s fractal. We need to see the big picture of this hour, this meeting, this report, as well as of the next quarter. So we need moment by moment reminders to get out of the weeds and look.

I have no one to whisper in my ear, but I have my bracelet. What have you got?

Sense perceptions like the pinch of the bracelet are excellent, and we all have sense perceptions already. But we usually see them as distractions. Instead, we can let them be small weed cutters that give us a moment to raise our gaze.

A loud noise, the sound of our heels as we walk, the feel of a chair when we sit down, all have the power to cut through our mental weediness and bring our mind into focus. Extending that moment with a deep breath or a good stretch is powerfully refreshing.

Our sense perceptions are also very real. They are a contrast to the shifting hopes and fears that wrap themselves around our plans, our problem-solving, our deadline-meeting, our whole forest of weeds we live in. This is why sensations can be so powerfully reassuring.

And sense perceptions connect us with our big, simple human experience. They are a momentary gateway to the bigger, unencumbered state of mind that is free of all the weeds.

Then we can decide which weeds, if any, really deserve our attention.

As a CEO I’ve worked with, at a private equity fund, says, “Few leaders effectively manage their own effectiveness. The two key things are having greater awareness to see more options, and greater insight into which option is the right one. When I’m just in reactive mode, responding to the stimulus of the moment, I don’t have the space to see as many options and can’t judge them as clearly. That’s a problem I need to avoid.”

For more weed-cutter techniques, see Claustrophobia and Space

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